(This is the first post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What is working and what is not during this school year?
Guest editor Neema Avashia did a wonderful job bringing together responses to this question in a previous post.
I thought, as a prelude to my writing a post listing changes I want to make during second semester, it would be helpful to me—and, perhaps, interesting to others—if I shared my own working/not working list.
What has been working?
1. Peer Tutors: Our school has flooded our ELL newcomer and intermediate classes with peer tutors who are either advanced ELLs or students who have previously attended my International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge classes. They have been a tremendous asset in “accelerating learning,” and we plan on making this program a permanent fixture at our school. You can read more about it here.
2. Mandatory student and teacher masking: As far as our school’s strong contact-tracing team has determined, all students who have been found to have COVID contracted it outside of school and have not transmitted it to anyone sitting around them in a classroom (of course, Omicron might break this school record). Even though there are always students who need to be reminded to cover their nose, student respect for this safety protocol has been extremely high.
3. Administrator vigilance reducing the number of student fights: Even though other high schools in our area and around the country have reported increased student violence, our school has seen lower levels than before the pandemic. Administrators have focused on being very proactive in student-dispute resolution before they get to the point of violence.
4. Increased mental-health support for students: Our school’s regular counselors have been doing a fantastic job, but even they would have been overwhelmed if we hadn’t created a special mental-health center on campus with additional counselors, including those with bilingual skills. My students complete weekly check-in forms, and results from them have led to multiple counselor referrals. Many of my students have also been acting as mentors to younger students.
5. Personalized learning: And, by this, I don’t mean the technology-directed kind. Greeting every student by name every day, not creating a “one-size-fits-all” homework strategy, and inviting class input on issues ranging from curriculum content to preferred learning games have been just a few ways I’ve tried to emphasize more personalization.
6. Capturing time in classes for lesson-planning and grading: I was spending at least half of each weekend (not to mention sizable chunks of each evening) planning and grading during the first two months of the year. Student needs, and my desire to squeeze every single second out of instructional time, eliminated the ability to use any school time for those tasks. And that exhaustion was not going to be sustainable throughout the year. Now, thanks to strategic use of peer tutors and student-teachers, the development of a positive classroom culture, and well-designed learning tasks, I am often able to carve out a total of at least 30 minutes and often more each day to plan and grade—with minimal, if any, reduction in student learning.
7. Emphasizing student presentations: Plenty of research supports the value of students teaching their classmates, and presentations provide tremendous opportunities for English-language learners to develop their language skills. However, creating those opportunities can require a lot of scaffolding and support, and often, it’s challenging for a single teacher to be able to provide them. However, being able to have peer tutors support students preparing presentations, help them practice, and observe and critique them in small groups has resulted in tremendous levels of language acquisition this year.
8. Playing games for learning and formative assessment: Our students can use all the joy they can get, and there are countless online and in class with mini-whiteboard games that can be used. I’ve always used games but never more than this year. And I’ve never had students more excited about participating in what are, in effect, extremely informational formative-assessment activities.
Honorary mention: Our district’s student vaccine mandate, which actually isn’t working very well: By the end of January, all students (except those with exemptions) are supposed to be vaccinated or they will have to go to the district’s off-campus independent-study program. At last report, only 50 percent of eligible students have been vaccinated. Who knows what the final number might be, if the deadline will be changed, and what the district might have been able to do better in implementing the mandate? Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say the number of vaccinated students will be greater than it would have been without it and I’m grateful for that.
What Has Not Been Working?
1.TikTok challenges and threats against schools. I enjoy a fun TikTok video as much as anyone, and they can be used for productive educational purposes. But we don’t need viral TikTok challenges to slap teachers, commit gun violence, or wreck school restrooms.
2. Increased student cellphone use. I am not an anti-cellphone fanatic. I always tell students they can use their phones for calls from work, calls from family, and for school use, and 85 percent to 90 percent of students are extremely respectful of that guideline. However, about 10 percent of my students just can’t seem to stay off of them, and that percentage holds true among my colleagues’ classes, as well. I’m not at all professionally qualified to diagnose an addiction, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if someone who was qualified would come to that conclusion about some. A year-and-a-half of primarily relating to the world through cellphones seems to have left a permanent imprint among a few of my students. And, no, don’t tell me I just need to make my class more engaging—it’s pretty darn engaging!
3. School districts, including our own, often not recognizing that actions by leaders matter. For example, in the midst of high-stress and short-staffed pandemic times, many districts vocally promote teacher self-care but take actions like the recent one by our school board to raise the superintendent’s compensation package by $66,000 annually at the same time it’s proposing to decrease teachers’ salaries by making us pay more for health insurance without offsetting our salaries. Fortunately, there are exceptions, like the superintendent who donated his bonus to classified staff, but, at least based on my conversations with teachers across the country, they are not in the majority.
4. My lesson plan schedule. Four out of every 5 days, I don’t get anywhere near as far along in my lessons as I hope/plan to be. Everything seems to take longer than I remember it has taken in the past or as I expect it to take. COVID testing, student quarantining, and spending more time on social-emotional learning are just a few reasons behind the delays. Distance learning, however, gave me an opportunity to determine the most important topics that need to stay and which ones get to go, so it’s serving me well this year, too.
5. Not taking mental-health days. The substitute-teacher shortage has been devastating everywhere. Because of the number of classes I teach, I have often been spared having to give up my planning period to cover another class because we couldn’t get a sub. However, not being able to take the three or four mental-health days I usually take has taken its toll—I just can’t in good conscience do it knowing that it means my colleagues will lose their prep for that day.
6. School district independent-study program. Our school district has not been the only one that did not prepare at all well for students who wanted to remain distance learning, and many students are still not getting the education they deserve. Omicron is not going to make the situation any better, so I hope that districts everywhere get their act together.
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at email@example.com. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.
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